JuLY 26, 2020, Scripture Readings and Sermon
Rev. Mark Hatch
1 Kings 3:5-12
At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”
It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.”
Your decrees are wonderful; *
therefore I obey them with all my heart.
When your word goes forth it gives light; *
it gives understanding to the simple.
I open my mouth and pant; *
I long for your commandments.
Turn to me in mercy, *
as you always do to those who love your Name.
Steady my footsteps in your word; *
let no iniquity have dominion over me.
Rescue me from those who oppress me, *
and I will keep your commandments.
Let your countenance shine upon your servant *
and teach me your statutes.
My eyes shed streams of tears, *
because people do not keep your law.
When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
Sermon: Why get out of bed?
WHO AM I?
There is an old and wise saying that “It is a long journey to get to the moment.” But here we are. Not just a moment of reflection and transition for us, together, in this ministry at Southwick and beyond. But, equally, the moment (which is, in fact, an ever recurring “moment”), many "moments", when we take stock, sit at the right hand of God, and spend some time looking deeply at who we are, why we are here, and what God holds in store for each of us and for all of us. It would not be an overstatement that, in some ways, this reckoning with God and with ourselves is at the very heart, the very core, the very epicenter of the life of faith and the meaning of our lives.
In what is perhaps his best known and most enduring piece of writing, Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked of us the same, stark question he asked of himself: “Who am I?” Written from Tegel Prison in the late winter of 1945, at a perilous time, Bonhoeffer’s clear urgency, spiritual foundation, and yet mystical equanimity arrive, blended together, in a remarkable poem. And like all great literature, like all great prophecy, like all great spiritual writings and pilgrimages and undertakings, the question itself and its eternal value remain to this day and to this hour. Despite his own tragic and fatal outcome, the call to life, to living, to examination, to reflection, to prayer and to response is indelible and it is boundless: “Am I then really that which other men tell of? Or am I only what I myself know of myself?”, Bonhoeffer wrote. “Who am I? This or the Other? Am I one person today and tomorrow another? Am I both at once?”. In one form or another, this fundamental search for meaning, this elemental quest for wisdom and purpose, this deep and intimate striving for God, this profound and passionate longing for self-understanding and intention and devotion, forever animates who we are.
On the one hand, this inquiry is the central, existential, spiritual question we all ask throughout our lives: why am I here? what is the meaning of life? what is my purpose, our purpose? What is my value to the world? (as one theologian put it). Some would argue that we never truly know the answer to those questions until we reach the River Jordan at the end of our earthly lives, and cross over. At the first deathbed I ever attended to, in my very first parish in rural North Carolina, a beloved and faithful parishioner, in his last earthly moments, looked up at me, and reflecting peacefully on his very imminent death, simply said: “Now I’ll really know.” An experience of grace, mystery, wonder and love I have obviously never forgotten. For others, the sense of a “calling”, the innate and almost transcendent feeling and affirmation that you are on the right path and in the correct lane, can be a constant unfolding, it can take time, even a lifetime. Yet this too serves as proof and support for one’s journey of the self, of the “rowing toward God” that Anne Sexton wrote about. And while Bonhoeffer faced this ultimate question at the most perilous hour in his own life and at a dreadful time in our larger human history, today’s Gospel that I have been reflecting on equally compels us to face the same deep question, at a similarly perilous, equally vital, and clearly life-changing juncture in the life of the Spirit and in the movement of Faith.
In one deceptively simple line from Luke’s Gospel, in one utterly breathtaking moment, Jesus puts us in this very place. Let us listen again to verse 51: “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up…” [Luke 9:51] So there it is. Jesus’ end is near. His time is done. The hour is upon him. And Jesus knows this. His earthly ministry is near an end and he makes this utterly clear. So what now? What does he do? What does Jesus, in fact, ask and demand of us? Luke goes on to say: “And he sent messengers ahead of him.” [Luke 9:52]. Not alongside him. Not behind him. Not with him. Not next week. Not after a strategy meeting. Not maybe. But clearly and unequivocally - “Ahead of him.” Now. Indeed, to borrow from another story we know well, here we are as the mantle is literally being passed from Jesus to the disciples. And make no mistake about it - here we are, you and I, at a “Who Am I?” moment like almost no other. It is now us, you and I, moving onward, being sent “ahead.” And so the ultimate spiritual question is asked of each and every one of us – Who are you? What story will you now tell? What are you going to say? What is your purpose and plan and hope and struggle as you, we, are now the bearers of The News, the custodians of the Jesus story, the tellers of The Tale? Jesus has thrust us into an intense reckoning and responsibility, for the Gospel now rests with us. “Who am I?”, we might ask, in such a moment. Because this is unnerving and life-altering stuff, one of those truly momentous turning points in scripture and in our lives. Jesus is done. He has told us to go forth and to carry the message, in a myriad of ways. How shall we answer the call?
One writer, reflecting on this Christian challenge, summed it up rather well. He wrote: “am I the hero they tell me I am (or should be), or am I the terrified frailty that I know myself to be?”  So there it is, and here we are. A time of departures and a time of transition. An elemental turning point in the Jesus story, and a moment of both fear and grace, reflection and opportunity. The Leader is soon to be gone forever and we are left to carry forth. How do we respond? Who am I? Who are we? What story will we tell? Who will listen?
At the very least, as we respond, we must never forget what we already know: the cost of discipleship is and will be high. One follower of Jesus wants to rain down fire upon the Samaritans. Um, no. Not a good way to get your message of love and salvation across. Another wants to take a detour to say goodbye to friends and family: "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." [Luke 9:61] Um, no. Jesus is equally adamant that this too is a diversion and a distraction that cannot be countenanced. And lest there be any doubt, Jesus says to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." [Luke 9:62] Period. The deep testing, the deep examination of spiritual commitment, the deep demands of a life of the faith are made painfully clear. You are either fully with me, Jesus says, or you are not. As I reflected last week, half measures shall avail us nothing.
Quite frankly, I am not sure I could do this, just walking away from those I love, just turning away from it all, just literally leaving everyone behind without a word of farewell. And it is ok to have your own doubts too, because that is beautifully human. But Jesus and the Gospel are unequivocal - if we are true disciples, if we truly believe, if we genuinely feel and know that we have a miraculous and life-changing story to share with others, if we are truly prepared to lay down our life for this gift of salvation, then we shall follow that road and no other. A hard saying it may be, but there is no doubt what Jesus is asking. This struggle is the dark night of the soul, and it is a big deal. Very ancient scripture reminds us, “(you) have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right” [1 Kings 3:11]. If ever there was a time to dig deep into the heart and soul and spirit for guidance and for reassurance it is now.
As I also reflected last week, at this juncture some are fearful and many are scared. Some are excited and many are curious. Some are moving and many are stuck. And some of us simply want to pull the covers up over our heads and go back to bed.
But something is happening here, and the world will never be the same again. Jesus knew this. He lived and died for it. Bonhoeffer knew this. He lived and died for it. The disciples knew this. They lived and died for it. And so must we.
And thus, in the end, the eternal question remains for all of us: Who Am I? And the beautiful truth and the beautiful hope and the beautiful promise is this - I still don’t fully know, not yet anyway, but I pray that I’m getting there. And I pray that you are too.